Mia Maestro on Viruses, Vampires and Being 'the Heart' of Del Toro's 'The Strain'

From Alias to Frida to Twilight, Mia Maestro has often existed on the periphery of the action – participating for sure, but often second or third banana behind the project’s lead or even its sweeping story. But in FX’s new horror series The Strain, co-creator Guillermo Del Toro sees her role as Dr. Nora Martinez as central, and not just because she’s part of the team from the Centers for Disease Control that discovers a deadly viral outbreak may have decidedly supernatural ramifications.

And then of course there’s the fact that she quickly transforms from a caregiver into an ass-kicker, complete with a gun that shoots silver bullets.

Maestro spoke with the press from the Toronto set of The Strain, where the cast and crew were wrapping their ninth or 10th episode. In addition to describing her character, she talked about the importance of the role to del Toro, and offered a few hints at what viewers will see during the thriller’s first season.

Just to get started, tell us about your character and how she fits into the story.

Mia Maestro: I play Nora Martinez, and Nora is Ephraim’s [played by Corey Stoll] right hand at the CDC, and close friend and sometimes lover. So, it’s a complex relationship. Basically, I’m a biochemist, and I work alongside Eph, just discovered the virus, and we’re trying to save the world. Yeah, and then we just encounter, when the plane lands, we are just faced with something we’ve never been faced with before.

Was your experience with Twilight not cathartic enough to keep you from doing a vampire-themed project?

Actually, it was, you know. It was a very, very interesting experience. It’s nice to be able to create the world vampires by the hand of Guillermo, who’s a visionary. In a way, I feel like the vampire genre still is being written and visualized as if it was still the 18th century, in a very romantic way. Somehow, Guillermo and Chuck [Hogan, del Toro’s co-author] have taken the genre into the 21st century, so it’s quite exciting. Of course, it’s extremely different from Twilight.

Are there any similarities?

No. No similarities at all.

Nice mug, by the way. [It reads, “FUCK DEATH.”]

Oh, yeah, the mug. Actually I saw them before we shot the pilot and then got a few just to give around. Corey has one, and Guillermo has one, and it’s the only word we cannot say. We cannot say “fuck.”

Does it stand for something deeper than its literal meaning?

I think, if you read the books, and over a few episodes, that’s the main idea that they may have, especially when they become warriors and start battling and going after the Master and the main vampires. You kind of have to have that attitude, a little bit of a rebel … from doctors and biochemists, all of a sudden, they’re encountered with this reality that is way beyond what they ever thought could be possible, so they have to grab the weapons and just fuck death and start beheading some people.

So, yeah, I thought it was funny. It’s also the only word we cannot say, because it’s a show in FX. It’s not allowed to -- you cannot say “fuck” in some television networks in the States.

When we meet Nora in the pilot, we feel that she’s sort of reckless, going into the cockpit after being told not to. Are we going to see more of that in your character, or is she much more careful than we think?

I mean, from her point of view, she’s done that a million times. Eph and her are a team, and she’s been, when you need to put a hazmat suit on is when there’s a possibility of a level-four virus, like Ebola or Marburg or something extremely deadly, so she’s done that a million times. Being a biochemist, she works with those viruses, sometimes for periods every day, where she has to put the whole hazmat suit and actually work in her laboratory with the suit. [But] I mean, you may know that there’s maybe something else going on, but the characters don’t. They just think they’re dealing with a virus. And, yeah, the idea that they may be having an affair in the pilot – Eph has been separated for a long time from his wife, and they work hand in hand, they travel all over the world together, so it’s the kind of thing where sometimes it happens between people that work together.

What is the situation with you and Ephraim as the show continues? He seems to want to get back with his wife.

I don’t know. I think from her point of view, what has happened is, since he’s been separated, I don’t believe Nora and Eph had an affair when Eph was still with his wife, but since he’s been separated, perhaps a couple of times, on trips, after finishing a whole week of really hard work, they had a few drinks and then something happened, but it was never established that they’re in a relationship. They’re really good co-workers first, and they’re really good friends. Same thing with Jim, the three of us have been through a lot together, because of the nature of the work that they do, so yeah, I just think it may have been a couple accidents, but it’s not really established that they’re in a relationship or not. But she’s smart enough and adult enough not to be asking many questions. She knows that he’s going through a divorce. And on the other hand, I think, from my perspective, Eph’s idea of trying to get back with his wife is not so much about that their relationship really worked for him, it’s more just for their son, not having a son involved in a broken family. So that’s the perspective.

Why are vampires, or at least vampire shows, so seductive?

Um, I don’t know. I think there’s something about this era or the times that we live, there are a lot of things that actually suck our energy and life out of us. It could be advertisement or publicity or the horrible level of the food that we consume, where it’s really hard to find your true energy, and it’s hard to find what your spirit really is, and what we actually have come to do here, this lifetime. So there is this vampiric main energy that we are going through. It was born in the late 19th century, which was the Industrial Revolution, then the sexual revolution, and then it’s this whole idea of immortality. What would you miss if you died? All the things that you would miss, because you have this idea, talking philosophy, this positivistic way of seeing the world, that it will only get better. So if you become eternal, then you will see it all. Whereas in the 14th century or 15th century, you just wanted to have a good life and have good food and have the best possible time, play the guitar, sing songs, have a bonfire, and everyone’s happy. Have your sheep. So I think what Guillermo and Chuck have done is taken the genre into a complete new world. It’s nothing you’ve ever seen. There’s no fangs. It’s basically a virus. That’s why Nora and Eph are quite good just being the heroes of it all, and also with David’s [Bradley] character, Setrakian, brings a whole perspective. But with their expertise of dealing with virus, and then also Kevin Durand’s character, his expertise as the rat hunter, then we can combine all our knowledge and just kind of like create the perfect team.

Who is Nora as a person?

She’s an immigrant. She came with her mom to the States. She’s a very focused person, extremely intelligent. Actually, she has dedicated her whole life to her career and what she does. She’s very involved with people and extremely caring. She’s quite drama-free, as a person, because she’s so focused on her career, to the point sometimes of being a bit disengaged with her personal life; hence, she’s single. The only person she has a relationship with is the person she sees 24 hours a day, which is Eph.

Does she know Eph better than his wife does?

I think so, yeah, and I think over the episodes, you see that she really understands him, and Eph really loves her because of that, in his own way. He’s an addict in recovery, he’s been sober for a year, so that comes with the whole baggage that a person who has an addiction may have, and I think Nora is aware of that, and sometimes she’s good at keeping her own boundaries, and sometimes she doesn’t.

If anyone has been in a relationship with someone that has an addiction, it happens. One has to just be engaging, what are your boundaries, when to say stop, when to give and when to love and when to be tough. Nora does that with Eph all the time.

What does it take to convince Nora that the virus is not natural?

She’s the first one to see, or to have a perception that this may not be what they normally face. She’s the first person to recognize that this person played by David, Setrakian, has something that is quite hypnotizing to her, even though whatever he says sounds completely ridiculous and logically just doesn’t make any sense.

Guillermo, when we were doing the pilot, he told me, “She’s the one that knows, and she’s the heart of the story. She’s the one that understands beyond logic that this is what’s going on, and she makes the connection.” He said, “Because you’re a woman, and you’re Latin.” So, he’s like, “You know,” and I’m like, “OK.” I love him. Yeah.

What has it been like, working with Guillermo?

It has been incredible. He’s such a force of nature, such a beautiful director. He really sees through you. Anything you think, it’s completely visible to him. There really are no secrets you can keep when Guillermo’s watching you. And it’s quite remarkable; I’ve never worked with a director like that, where he knows if you are thinking about other things that you may be doing. He comes and says, “I know you’re thinking that maybe you should be doing this, but we’re OK, you’re on the right track.” Or, like, “What the fuck are you doing? Look at your face. You look ridiculous.” [You say,] “OK, yeah, you’re right.” So, he’s so intense and so much fun and brings so much humor and so much love onto the set, and everyone that works around him wants to give the best of them. He’s so respected and yet he’s so lighthearted. He combines these very interesting qualities that normally don’t come together.

This feels like the first time that he’s made a monster movie where the monsters are 100 percent rotten. Do you feel that he still loves his monsters?

Oh, he loves his monsters. He’s directing second unit, with, like, hand doubles, just to shoot the monsters properly. He’s doing a movie at the same time, and he shoots our second unit on Saturdays to shoot the monsters properly. He adores them. They’re like his babies. They’re really extremely mean. On the other hand, they’re a virus, so if you think about it, many times, I’m sick, or my mother’s sick or my father’s sick, and one day they die, it’s like, “Oh, my God, my parents died, because they had this illness or that illness.” One time, one person told me, “Yeah, they died, but have you ever seen it from the perspective of the illness? The illness won.” So it was a battle between that loved one and the illness, and the illness won. From a really holistic, macro point of view, the illness has to live as well. And somehow I think Guillermo, that’s the way he sees the virus, and they’re endemic, and they just need to survive, and it’s a different order. From their point of view, if you ask Richard Samuel, who plays Eichhorst, such a horrible, mean character. Richard could give you a list of things where his character is just doing the right thing, what happens with the master and the vampires too.

What’s Nora’s weapon of choice?

We’re getting to these episodes now and also taking, the question that he asked before, little by little, Nora is, in the pilot, she’s Eph’s assistant in a way. She’s assisting. She’s in most of the scenes with Eph, but she’s taking a step back. She becomes quite powerful, and a lot of things happen to her throughout the episodes. She just has to become a warrior. I think she’s going to become a shooter. She’s going to be a gun person, which is not the weapon that you would normally see her with. But it’s just heading towards that direction. I don’t know if that’s going to change, though.

Will it be a gun with bullets or nail gun with silver nails?

No, she gets a real gun with silver bullets that we cast in Setrakian’s basement.

Have you shot that scene yet?

We’ve been shooting the scenes of loading the gun. We shot a couple of scenes of shooting.

How capable are you with a handgun or weapon?

I’m pretty good at shooting. I did Alias for a long time, where I played a CIA agent.

You say they’re making silver bullets but it’s a virus. So it’s not a vampire epidemic?

No, no, they’re vampires, but vampires seen as a virus. They’re a bit reluctant to just call them vampires, because then, as we know, that has a lot of baggage. For example, we treat the Master, which is the main vampire, as Patient Zero, which is where the strain of virus actually started, and that’s how they see it. It’s not that it’s a fight with this or that; it’s the same thing, which is the approach of trying to tackle and kill them, from our medical backgrounds. It’s like, silver, it destroys sulfur bonds and bacteria. It’s a very powerful antibacterial. It’s interesting, that’s why, when Setrakian goes, “silver bullets,” there is, yeah, it’s been known to do this and that. It’s like folk medicine; there are a lot of things that, over the year’s people have discovered through mythology.

Why was it a silver bullet then?

They did know, eventually. Like, when you apply silver to a wound, it heals more quickly than if you would apply gold. Then if you take silver as well, now, like, if you have a cough, you gargle with colloidal silver, that’s one of the most powerful things you can take.

You were turned into a zombie on Alias. How much do you sympathize with actors putting on the vampire makeup?

So much, and the makeup that they go through – I didn’t go through any. I just had contact lenses. The makeup process that they go through, it’s so hard, so many hours. On the other hand, they know that they’re working with some of the best prosthetic people in the world. Everyone on our prosthetic team is such a genius; it’s just really exciting for them to go through everything. And it’s so nice to see the makeup department, the prosthetic department and the special-effects department – they’re all one. For them, for Guillermo del Toro, they just want to show their best.

I don’t know if you know, but Guillermo started as a special-effects makeup artist, so he knows everything about it. So it’s not a director that says, “or it looks nice or bad,” he would say, “No, what you’re doing here, you’ve got to do it like this,” and then he would come to the makeup trailer and just show them. So, it’s pretty wonderful to watch the guys create these amazing, amazing monsters.

How much specificity does he give you about your character, and how much do you have the opportunity to define her yourself?

Because we’ve been given the three books, we were in such a wonderful position compared to other TV shows, because we do have the structure of the characters, and yet there’s a wonderful group of writers who are rewriting our characters all the time. But we still know more or less, the epicness of the story somehow, where the characters can go. It may change or it may not. Then we have the writers that are right with us. Of course, they’re writing the scripts, we send notes, and we work with them on what we think the character needs, and they say yes or no, that’s a good idea or that’s a terrible idea. And then, on the other hand, we had Guillermo for the pilot, which was like doing a movie. It was almost like two months, a month and a half, and then he gave very specific notes for all of the characters. He would, every take he would come and tell me three, four different things. So it’s a combination of it all, and I think there’s a lot of space to give a lot from us to the characters, just put our imprint on it. For example, Nora is from Argentina, and he wrote that for me when I got cast in the role, so when I speak Spanish, I can use my own accent. We’re using the Argentinian background as well, in certain moments, Nora remembering what it was to be in Argentina, or what she was told, what it was like to be in Argentina during the dictatorship, which is a subject matter that I think interests Guillermo a lot, because of Pan’s Labyrinth and the civil war in Spain.

So, yeah, we can give a lot, and yet we have such a big structure just to base ourselves, that sometimes I think when you have a very structured character or story, it gives you even more. Having that base, you can be creative. It’s both. I’ve gotten a lot of notes from everyone, from Guillermo, about Nora, but yet I can give so much to Nora that’s not written in the books. That also changes with the performances and how you interact with the characters. The writers are really alert on what works, what doesn’t work, and to write the right scenes for you, what’s the best environment and type of dialogue and type of situation, that we can give our best to as actors.

In a scene, Natalie [Brown] said Guillermo came up and gave her the word “magnanimous,” which helped her. Can you think of an example of that kind of phrasing, that he told you that really informed you how to play a scene?

Yeah, so many times. I don’t know if I remember exactly a word. He would always emphasize that Nora is extremely strong and extremely intelligent and scientific, and yet he would always, actually, the main thing he would tell me is, “You don’t have to do anything, Nora is exactly the Mia that I know, that could be very poignant in a moment, very focused. She could make an intelligent comment and then be this other, really loose person that can play the guitar and be a bit more bohemian. That’s what I want from Nora.” Sometimes when you’re doing television, or you’re doing a movie, like, if you play the scientist, she’s a very type a kind of person. He didn’t want Nora to be that at all. It was just really nice for a director to come and say, the character is you, do not do anything, because this is you. Just say the words, not thinking about it. That’s nice.

How did having Guillermo direct the pilot help define your and the other actors’ characters?

I think for everyone, it was quite crucial just to have him with us. He just gave the tone. I know that with the new directors, he likes specific colors in the scenes, so he talks to the DPs, there’s a specific palette that him and Checco Varese, our DP, from the pilot, sat together. So definitely there’s this whole aesthetic that he set for the look of the show. And also, a lot of the sets and a lot of the prosthetics and makeup, and a lot of the look, Guillermo set. You have to remember, we’re on Episode 109, and I think only five days pass by. They’re days when Eph and Nora or Jim cannot go back home to change, because they’re literally, once the plane lands at JFK, they cannot take a shower for three, four days. So I’ve been wearing the clothes that Guillermo chose for me for months now. It’s really nice. He chose the colors, and the type of personality that would pick those clothes. He set up a lot of stuff for us.

And the novels, he wrote, like, three huge novels. That’s so unusual for us to have. It’s a little bit of a bible that we depart from and come back to. Then we get excited if there’s new things that are not in the book, and the writers, Carlton [Cuse, the showrunner], have an idea. It’s just exciting.

What’s new with your character that’s different from in the book?

Yeah, there’s a few things in relationship with my mom that are quite different. I think the whole story with my mom is going to be a little bit different than in the book. Of course, Nora’s from Argentina, so that’s more similar to the real Mia. And yeah, she’s a lot more of a worrier in the TV show than what she is in the books.In the books, she’s left behind, taking care of Zack, a lot. And in the TV show, I go with the guys.

Do you typically prefer relationship or action scenes or scenes with vampires?

That’s the beauty of the show. There’s some times that we’ll be doing scenes with Corey for days and days, and a vampire scene will come, and I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s a vampire show!” I totally freak out. Truly, it’s like, “Oh, my god, there’s these people …” Then as the characters, you’re like, we have the same feeling as the actors.

I think that’s quite wonderful because this show has, it’s really a drama show that happens to be a vampire show. So then you have those two genres just, like, gliding. It’s like, “Oh, yeah.” But having cast actors like David or Corey or myself and Natalie, it’s not a genre show. It’s a really dramatic show that happens to have vampires. I don’t think there’s anything like it, where you have such an intricate and beautiful story. We give so much importance to Eph’s relationship with his ex-wife, his son, Nora with her mother, and Jim, and the friendship between the three of them.

And yet, we’re fighting vampires. It’s just not about the prosthetics. We have the coolest vampires in the world, and they are. It’s more about playing, what would happen, right here, right now, in normal life, and then this other reality come in, settles and it’s a new paradigm. What would you do if you were on the verge of the world changes, and it’s a complete new paradigm where there’s a force that lands, and you have to deal with it. And it’s actually destroying human beings?

I’ve never seen anything like it in a TV show. You’ve seen it in a movie, but it’s only two hours. Here we have so much time and so many hours to explore and just do nuances of things. It’s been, I don’t know how many hours already, discovering my relationship with Eph and mom and this new reality and realizing, and then having all this time to become a better fighter and be actually ready just to tackle and kill these motherfuckers.

The Strain premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

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